The Dictator Review: In Wadiya We Trust
It’s not every day that a movie dedicates itself in loving memory of Kim Jong-Il. This is the setup of The Dictator, in which notorious comedian Sacha Baron Cohen plays notorious dictator Admiral General Aladeen of the fictional middle eastern country of Wadiya. The film is as hilarious and offensive as all other Cohen outings and still manages to maintain the ironic social commentary that Cohen is known for.
Aladeen is born into wealth and luxury, not to mention a full beard straight out of the womb. From this, he begins to seize control of Wadiya with the help of his faithful advisor Tamir (Ben Kingsley) and soon Aladeen begins to rule with an iron fist. His first order of business is to create a nuclear arms program, which succeeds in constructing the world’s tiniest nuclear warhead. A second attempt from Wadiya’s chief scientist Nadal (Jason Manzoukas) yields a much bigger missile, but one that has a rounded tip rather than a pointy one. Dissatisfied with the design, he orders Nadal executed along with a gaggle of other scientists. When the world hears that the country is developing a nuclear arms program, they call Aladeen to the United Nations where he will explain his actions.
Aladeen and Tamir are greeted with good old fashioned American hospitality from a Government Agent (John C. Reilly) who is every bit as racist as Aladeen. “Pretty much anybody not from the U.S., I consider an A-Rab,” he says with a thick southern accent. Later that night, Aladeen is kidnapped by the Agent who looks forward to torturing the self-proclaimed Maddog of Wadiya, but Aladeen is not frightened by the Agent’s “outdated” torture methods. He finally cuts off Aladeen’s beard and sets it ablaze with the “Fallujah Firehose”. Aladeen escapes and tries to get into the UN, but finds out that he has been replaced by an imposter, whose goal is to create a new constitution for Wadiya that turns it into a democracy.
What follows is essentially a Fish Out of Water story that works to hilarious effect after Aladeen is rescued by green hippie Zoey (Anna Faris). He calls himself “Alison Burgers” after passing by a few street signs, a joke that gets called back many times to great effect (one of these names is “Emer Gencyexitonly”). Zoey works at a all-natural market called Green Earth and Aladeen now must put aside his scathing and very funny racist tendencies in order to blend into the workspace there while he forms a plan to reclaim his identity with the help of Nadal, the man he thought he executed, but whom he finds alive and well working in an Apple store. As he falls for Zoey, he begins working at Green Earth slowly turns the bumbling market into a mini-dictatorship, even going so far as to having the workers address him as “Supreme Grocer”. Whatever the method used, its working and the market is flourishing along with his relationship with Zoey.
Cohen’s last few feature film outings have been focused with laser-like precision on satirical humor meant to deconstruct stereotypes and stigmas of a particular group of people. Fundamentally, that theme is present in The Dictator, but it is presented in a different way. Rather than use the character as a catalyst for the satire, Cohen here turns Aladeen, who is a villain and mass murderer, into a complete and total buffoon. There is a scene early on in the film where Aladeen explains how his knowledge of missiles and explosions comes specifically from cartoons is an encapsulation of this characterization. The comedy is also generally broader in The Dictator, which works to great effect. One scene in which Aladeen helps give birth to a baby while falling in love with Zoey at the same time does not need to rely on race or political satire to be funny. It just is because Aladeen is totally ridiculous. Equally hysterical is a sequence in which Zoey explains to Aladeen the secrets of pleasuring oneself in which the audience is treated to stock footage of eagles soaring and basketball players slam dunking as he tugs one out. It also helps that every character in the movie stresses to Aladeen what a total moron he is even though he doesn’t seem to notice.
Director Larry David reteams with Cohen for a third outing and his able comedic hand can be felt over most of the proceedings. Cohen is also obviously essential here as well, finding a way to lend a bit of pathos to a character who is fundamentally despicable. The film’s music also needs a very special shout out, which provides Arabic cover versions of songs “Everybody Hurts”, “9 to 5”, and “Let’s Get It On” amongst others and seem to make the scenes they are in twice as funny as they should be. The film’s structure and general story owes a great deal to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a film that found that timeless comedian sending up the great menace of that time, Adolf Hitler. With all the identity swapping and clever name-plays, it’s hard to not feel that film’s large presence hanging over The Dictator, but that’s really ok, because it all works quite well.
The Dictator is an offensive, loaded, and completely hilarious film, which marks Sacha Baron Cohen’s return to narrative feature films since the very blah Ali G Indahouse. The Dictator is a vast improvement from that film and it seems that Cohen and David have found what components from the faux-documentary style of Borat and Bruno work naturally in a narrative feature. It’s a good start for what will hopefully continue Cohen’s style of smart, in-your-face, and blazingly funny social satire.
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.